Even with the establishment of commerce between our two lands, even with seven years having passed without additional conflicts, the people of my land remain deeply distrustful of Lon-Ser. They accept the goods you send, but only because these goods ease the burdens of their daily chores. They are curious about your land and eagerly seek knowledge about your customs and society. They even acknowledge that our languages are similar and that this implies a shared ancient history. Still, they remain convinced that war with Lon-Ser is not only possible but perhaps inevitable. Many of us in the Order have tried to convince them that this is not the case, that we have little to fear from you, but even the people who live in Order towns remain skeptical. More than ten years have passed since the outlanders burned our villages and killed our people, but the scars are still fresh. -- Hawk-Mage Orris to Melyor i Lakin, Sovereign and Bearer of Bragor-Nal, Winter, God's Year 4633.
He is standing in a field he does not recognize, squinting up into a bright blue sky. Above him, two birds do battle, wheeling and stooping, talons outstretched and beaks open. They are enormous, and framed as they are against the sun and the blue, they appear almost utterly black.
For one terrifying instant he fears that the outlanders have returned. But the outlanders' birds would not fight each other, and both of these creatures are crying out stridently, something the mechanical hawks from Lon-Ser never did. So he watches, marveling at the size and grace of the winged combatants, though troubled at the sight of their slashing claws and beaks. Yet, even with his eyes riveted on the struggle taking place above him, he senses another presence in the clearing.
Tearing his gaze from the birds, he sees a woman standing on the far side of the field. She has straight brown hair and pale eyes, and there is something vaguely familiar about her. For a disorienting moment he wonders if this is his daughter, grown suddenly into a woman. But when he hears her laugh, malicious and bitter, he knows that this cannot be. He opens his mouth to ask her name, but before he can he hears a piercing wail from above.
The two birds are locked together now, their talons digging into each other's flesh and their wings beating desperately though in unison, as if even in the throes of battle they are working together to keep themselves aloft. But their efforts are in vain. Toppling one over the other, they fall to the ground, landing at his feet. They are dead, though whether from the impact or the damage they have inflicted on one another, it is impossible to tell. And seeing them at last, their carcasses bathed in the sunlight that had obscured their color and features just seconds before, he cries out in despair.
Jaryd awoke with a start and found himself immersed in darkness. He heard Alayna beside him, her breathing slow and deep, but otherwise all was still. Lying back against his pillow, he took a long, steadying breath and closed his eyes. He knew better than to try to go back to sleep. His heart was racing, and his hair was damp with sweat. He was awake for the day. He opened his eyes again and stared up toward the ceiling, although he could see nothing for the darkness.
"You up again?" Alayna asked him in a muffled, sleepy voice.
"Yes," he whispered. "Go back to sleep."
She said something in reply that he couldn't make out, and a moment later her breathing slowed again.
He couldn't remember the last time he had slept through the night. It wasn't that he slept poorly. For the first several hours, he slept like the dead. But every day for weeks on end now he had awakened before dawn, sometimes spontaneously and other times, as today, out of a dream. At first he had taken his sleeplessness as a sign that something was coming; that perhaps, not too long from now, he would bind again, and end this interminable wait. But slowly, as each day passed without a new familiar appearing, he began to accept that there was nothing more to it than the obvious: he was just waking up too early.
Usually during these predawn hours he tried to clear his mind using the exercises he had first learned so many years ago, when he was a Mage-Attend to his uncle Baden. If he wasn't going to sleep, he reasoned, he might as well prepare himself for his next binding. But invariably, rather than quieting his emotions and taming the confused thoughts that came to him in the darkness, the exercises only served to heighten his feelings of loss.
His hawk, Ishalla, was gone. She had been since late summer. And though he had hoped that the agony of losing his first familiar would begin to abate with time, he was forced to admit that it hadn't. He had so much in his life: a cherished wife and daughter, a brother and mother to the north whom he loved, and friends throughout the land for whom he would gladly have given his life. He had served the communities here on the western shores of Tobyn-Ser for nearly a dozen years, and in return he enjoyed the respect and affection of many of those who lived here. And yet, with all this, Ishalla's absence still left a void within him that he could scarcely fathom. Even the death of his father had not affected him so.
Time and again, he had watched people he loved, Baden, Trahn, Radomil, cope with the loss of their familiars. Orris had lost two familiars in the time Jaryd had known him, both of them as a result of violence. The first, a large impressive hawk, had been killed at Theron's Grove by the great owl carried by the traitor, Sartol. And the second, a dark falcon, died just over three years ago during one of Orris's many battles with members of the League, who had decided long ago that the burly mage deserved to die for what they viewed as his betrayal of the land.
Most recently, Alayna had lost Fylimar, the great grey hawk who had looked so much like Jaryd's Ishalla, that many in the Order had said that in sending them such similar familiars, the gods had marked Jaryd and Alayna for each other. Like Ishalla, Fylimar had died a natural death, one she had earned after a life of service to the land. This of course had not softened the blow for Alayna, any more than it had for Jaryd. But Alayna found a new familiar quite soon after Fylimar's death.
And what a binding it had been. She had left their home early in the day, leaving Jaryd to care for Myn, their daughter, and when she returned late that afternoon, she bore on her shoulder a large, yellow-eyed owl with great ear tufts. It was the same kind of bird to which Sartol, her mentor, had been bound, and it occurred to both Jaryd and Alayna that the gods were offering her a chance at redemption. "Sartol failed the land," they seemed to be saying. "Go now and make right all that he made wrong."
The others had bound again as well. Indeed, Trahn's binding to an owl had come just a few days after the death of his hawk, prompting Orris to suggest that owls had actually been waiting in line to become Trahn's familiar. Orris, too, had found his new familiar rather quickly. He was bound now to another falcon, this one larger than his last bird and as white as snow.
None of his friends had spent more than a season unbound. Yet here was Jaryd, still without a familiar after nearly half a year. Alayna assured him that, notwithstanding her experience or Trahn's, being unbound for long stretches was a normal part of being a mage. And Baden, who communicated with him periodically using the Ceryll-var, reminded him during one merging that Owl- Sage Jessamyn, Myn's namesake, who had been leader of the Order when Jaryd received his cloak, had spent more than a year unbound.
Such reassurances helped, but only a little. Certainly he didn't begrudge the others their bindings. He was deeply proud of Alayna, who had become the youngest Owl-Master within memory. But he could not help but wonder if he was ever going to bind again, or if he was destined to die unbound and become yet another victim of Theron's Curse.
He had spoken with Phelan, the Wolf-Master. He had endured the terrors of Theron's Grove and he now carried Theron's staff as his own. He had seen what it was to be unsettled, and the very idea of it filled him with a cold, penetrating dread. But after all this time without finding a new familiar, Jaryd was forced to acknowledge that this might be his fate, that the sense of foreboding that hovered at his shoulder all day, and followed him to bed at night, might carry the weight of prophecy.
After struggling with his fears privately for some time, he mentioned this possibility to Alayna, who reacted predictably.
"That's ridiculous," she told him. "We're all afraid of Theron's Curse. That's just part of being a mage. It certainly doesn't mean that you're fated to become one of the Unsettled."
He nodded silently, accepting the logic of what she said. But later that day he noticed her watching him, concern etched on her delicate features. And he knew what she was thinking. He has been unbound for such a long time . . .
Oddly, Jaryd found comfort not in anything Alayna or Baden said to him, but rather in a lesson he had learned long ago from his father. Jaryd had never been very close to his father, and the distance between them had only increased after Jaryd became a mage. But while Bernel had been brusque and taciturn, he also had possessed a pragmatic wisdom that had manifested itself late in his life in terse, pointed maxims that he offered without warning to anyone who cared to listen.
One of these Jaryd heard for the first time when he took Alayna and Myn to Accalia so that his mother and father could meet their granddaughter for the first time. During the journey, Myn slept poorly, often refusing to nurse, and Jaryd and Alayna worried that something might be wrong with her.
"Worrying's a fine way to waste some time," Bernel finally said, after listening to them fret for an entire afternoon, "but it sure doesn't accomplish very much, except to annoy the rest of us."
Alayna had taken offense, prompting Drina to scold her husband for the balance of the day. But lying now in his bed, watching the room he and Alayna shared brighten slowly with the first grey glimmerings of daylight, Jaryd could only smile at the memory.
He glanced over at Alayna, who was still asleep. Her long dark hair was streaked now with strands of silver, and her face was leaner than it had been when they first met eleven years ago. But the passage of the years had not diminished her beauty.
I can worry about becoming one of the Unsettled, Jaryd told himself. Or I can enjoy what the gods have given me until they decide that I'm ready for my next binding.
He smiled in the silver light. It didn't strike him as a difficult choice.
He leaned over and kissed Alayna lightly on her forehead. Then he silently slipped out of bed, dressed, and wrapped his green cloak tightly around himself. Spring was approaching, but there was still a chill in the air.
He started toward the common room, intending to light a fire in the hearth, but as he walked past Myn's room he glanced inside and saw his daughter sitting beside her small window, bundled in a thick blanket, and reading a worn book of Cearbhall's fables.
"Good morning, Love," Jaryd said in a whisper.
She looked up from the book and smiled at him. With her long chestnut hair, perfect features, and dazzling smile she was the image of Alayna. All except her eyes, which were pale grey, just like Jaryd's and those of his own mother.
"Good morning, Papa!" she said.
Jaryd held a finger to his lips and pointed back toward his bedroom. Myn covered her mouth, her eyes wide.
"What are you doing up so early?" he asked her quietly.
"I always wake up when you do," she whispered.
"How do you know when I wake up?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I just do."
Jaryd gazed at her for several seconds and then nodded. That she showed signs of having the Sight, already, at the age of six, did not surprise them. Both he and Alayna had understood from the beginning that their child would not be ordinary. But she was attuned to both of her parents in strange and wondrous ways, some of them remarkably subtle and completely unexpected.
Jaryd stood in her doorway for a another moment, watching her and grinning. She just looked back at him, saying nothing.
"I was going to make a fire and have some breakfast," he finally told her. "Are you hungry?"
She nodded, put the book on her bed, and keeping the blanket around her shoulders as if it were an overly large cloak, followed him into the common room.
After lighting the fire, Jaryd cut two large pieces of the dark currant bread he had made the day before and covered them with sweet butter. They sat in the kitchen, and as they ate, Myn told him about the fable she had been working her way through when he found her. She was just learning to read, and Cearbhall's work was not the easiest to figure out. The fable she had been reading, however, was one of his favorites, The Fox and the Skunk, and he had read it to her many times when she was younger.
"It was smart of you to start with one you know already," he said, still speaking in a whisper.
She smiled, her mouth full of bread. "Mama picked it out."
Jaryd laughed. "Well then it was smart of her."
He got up to cut some more bread, and as he did he heard the rustling of blankets in the other room.
"I think your mother's awake."
"She has been for a little while," Myn said. "I think she was listening to us."
Jaryd turned to look at her again.
"How did you know that, Myn-Myn?" Alayna asked, appearing in the kitchen doorway with Wyrinva, her great owl, sitting on her shoulder.
Myn looked at her mother and then at Jaryd, a shy smile on her lips. "I just know," she said, seeming embarrassed. "I can feel it when you're awake. Both of you."
Alayna glanced up at Jaryd and grinned.
"Is it bad that I can tell?"
"Not at all," Jaryd said.
"Does it mean I'm going to be a mage?"
Jaryd suppressed a laugh.
"I'd be very surprised if you weren't a mage," Alayna said, her eyes still on Jaryd. "And so would everyone else in Tobyn- Ser."
This time Jaryd couldn't help but laugh out loud. Since before she could walk, Orris and Baden had been saying that she was destined to be Owl-Sage, and though Jaryd and Alayna were determined to let Myn find her own path, neither of them doubted that she would bind someday, probably to Amarid's Hawk, just as they both had. The question was: would she join the Order or the League? Indeed, Jaryd could not even be certain that both would still exist by the time Myn was ready to choose. He shook his head. It was not a line of thought he cared to pursue just now.
"Good," Myn said. "I want to be a mage. I like going to Amarid."
"I'm glad you like going there," Alayna said, crossing to the bread and picking up the knife to cut herself a piece. "We like it, too."
"That's why I'm happy today."
Alayna turned to look at Myn, the knife poised over the loaf. "What do you mean, Myn-Myn?"
"I'm happy because we're going to Amarid soon."
"No, we're not, Love," Jaryd said gently. "It's still winter. The Gathering isn't until summer."
Myn smiled at him as if he were a child. "I know that. We're going anyway."
Alayna walked to where the girl was sitting. She squatted down and looked Myn in the eye. "What makes you think we're going to Amarid, Myn?"
"I saw us going there in a dream."
Alayna's eyes flicked to Jaryd for an instant and then she forced a smile. "There are different kinds of dreams, Myn-Myn. Your Papa and I have explained--"
"It was a real dream, Mama," Myn said earnestly. "I promise."
Jaryd took a deep breath. Myn's Sight had grown stronger over the past year. He and Alayna had learned to trust her visions almost as fully they trusted their own. He had no idea why they would need to undertake the journey to Amarid so suddenly, but neither did he truly doubt that they would. "How soon, Love?" he asked her. "When do you think we'll be going?"
Myn looked at him and wrinkled her forehead in concentration. "Tomorrow, I think," she finally said. "Maybe the day after."
He faced Alayna again and saw his own concern mirrored in her expression. What had happened? What would lead Owl-Sage Radomil to summon the mages of the Order to Amarid for a Gathering? Had something happened to Radomil himself? Had he fallen ill or died? Jaryd looked at his staff, which was leaning against the wall near the door of their small home. The sapphire stone mounted atop the ancient charred wood still glowed steadily. Neither Radomil nor First of the Sage Mered had awakened the Summoning Stone yet. If one of them had, Jaryd's stone, as well as that of every other mage in Tobyn-Ser, would have been flashing by now.
"We've still got some time," Alayna said, as if reading his thoughts. "We should probably let Narelle know."
Jaryd nodded. Narelle was the leader of the town council in Lastri, the nearest of the villages located along the shores of South Shelter. Or rather, the nearest of those villages that remained loyal to the Order rather than the League. Narelle needed to know that Jaryd and Alayna would be departing for Amarid, leaving Lastri and the other villages without their services for some time.
"I'll go and tell her," Jaryd said. "And I'll also get us some food. You and Myn can start closing up the house."
Alayna sighed. "All right," she said. "This is the last thing I was expecting."
"I know. Me, too."
"I'm sorry," Myn said, her voice quavering slightly.
Jaryd and Alayna both looked at her.
"For what, Love?" Jaryd asked.
Myn shrugged, refusing to look up. A single tear fell off her cheek and darkened the table.
Alayna placed a hand on her shoulder and bent to kiss her forehead. "It's not your fault that we have to go, Myn. Just because you have a vision, that doesn't mean you make it happen. We've told you that before. Remember?"
"Yes," the girl said softly, wiping another tear from her face.
"So we don't blame you. In fact, it's better that we know now, so we can get ready and warn the people in town."
Myn looked up. "Really?"
Alayna nodded and cupped Myn's cheek in her hand. "Really. Now go get dressed and wash up, and then we'll get to work."
"All right, Mama," Myn said. She stood, pulling her blanket around her shoulders once more, then returned to her bedroom.
"You don't have any doubts, do you?" Alayna asked Jaryd, staring after their daughter.
Jaryd shook his head. "No. A year ago I might have, but every vision she's had since last spring has been true. I don't see any reason to start doubting her now."
Alayna passed a hand through her hair. "Neither do I."
He let out a sigh. "I guess I'll go put a saddle on one of the horses.
"You can't," she said, grimacing. "I promised Myn I'd start teaching her to ride today."
"This isn't the best time, Alayna."
"I know, but I've been promising her since midwinter. And now that we're going to Amarid, who knows when I'll have another chance?"
"She'll be riding everyday for the next fortnight," Jaryd said.
"But with one of us sitting behind her. You know that's not the same."
He stared at her for several moments, shaking his head. The sunlight shining through a small window behind him made her eyes sparkle. Brown and green they were, like a forest in midsummer.
"Do you know how beautiful you are?" he said, smiling and kissing her lightly on the lips.
She gave a wry grin. "Does that mean you'll walk to the village?"
"What choice do I have?" he answered, laughing.
"Then you'd better get going. We have a lot to do today."
She pushed him toward the door, but not before letting him kiss her again.
He put on his leather shoes, which had been sitting on the floor beside the door, and stepped out into the cold morning air. A light westerly wind stirred his cloak and hair, carrying the familiar scents of brine and seaweed. A few featherlike clouds floated overhead, but otherwise the sky was nearly as blue as his ceryll. In winters past, on a morning like this one, he might have taken Ishalla to the water's edge and watched her fly or hunt.
He shook his head. "You're not doing yourself any good," he said aloud. He let out a long breath and started toward town.
The walk to Lastri usually took him nearly an hour. Once it had been a pleasant journey along a narrow trail that wound among towering forests of oaks, maples, ashes, and elms. Occasionally, the path angled toward the coast and the woods thinned, allowing a traveler to catch glimpses of Arick's sea pounding endlessly at the rocky shoreline below.
Over the past few years, however, the trail had changed, as had everything else in Tobyn-Ser. Vast stretches of the magnificent forest had been cut down so that the wood could be shipped to Lon-Ser, or in some cases, Abborij. Where the trees had been there was now little more than bare patches of exposed rock and dirt. Only the mangled roots and stumps left behind by the woodsmen gave any indication of what once had stood there. The trail had been widened and straightened into a broad, rutted road, so that the timber could be hauled to town in large carts drawn by teams of horses. And Lastri itself had become heavily dependent upon the wood trade. From all that Jaryd and Alayna had heard, Lastri was one of the largest wood ports in Tobyn-Ser. Many of its people had grown wealthy as a result, and it was hard to find a single family in the town that did not prosper in some way from the cutting of the forests. So whenever he visited the town, Jaryd tried to mask his distaste for what had been done to the landscape.
Not all the trees were gone. There were still sections of the journey that remained just as Jaryd remembered them, except for the road itself, which was wide and relatively straight all the way to town. But the areas of forest seemed smaller each time Jaryd saw them, and recently he had realized that there were now more stumps to be seen along the way than there were trees.
Indeed, he had last made the journey only a fortnight ago, and yet on this day, as he walked to Lastri wondering what crisis would compel them to Amarid, Jaryd could see that there had been even more cutting done during the interval. It was frightening how quickly the trees were disappearing.
His one consolation was that there were no woodsmen at work as he made his way to town. Not that they had ever treated Jaryd or Alayna with anything but courtesy and respect. In fact, several of them now greeted Myn by name when she made the journey with one of her parents. But they seemed to know how Jaryd and Alayna felt about the work they did, and they regarded the mages with suspicion.
More than that, the woodsmen had been hired by the Keepers of Arick's Temple, who now owned much of the land on either side of the path and who had profited more than any other group from Tobyn-Ser's recent forays into transisthmus commerce. Everyone in Tobyn-Ser was aware of the hostility that had existed since the time of Amarid between the Keepers and the Order. The emergence of the League and, more recently, of a growing number of so-called free mages, had done nothing to lessen this animosity, and it seemed to Jaryd that the Temples' commercial ventures had actually deepened it. Even if the woodsmen understood nothing of the issues that had divided the Children of Amarid and the Children of the Gods for a thousand years, they must have sensed that by working for the Temples they had made themselves parties to the feud.
Or perhaps Jaryd was merely imagining it all. Perhaps the woodsmen were just uncomfortable around the mages because, like so many of Tobyn-Ser's people, they were awed and a bit frightened by the power he and Alayna wielded. Or perhaps they supported the League rather than the Order. In a way it didn't matter. Whatever the reason, Jaryd was just as happy to find himself alone on the road. It gave him time to think.
The Summoning Stone hadn't been used in some time, not since the death of Sonel's owl necessitated the election of a new Owl- Sage nearly four years ago. And even then, the summons had only been for the Owl-Masters. The entire Order had not been called to the Great Hall in nearly seven years, since just before the sundering of the Order.
Even before Owl-Master Erland and his followers formed the League, use of the Summoning Stone was limited to dire emergencies. But with the Mage-Craft divided, use of the stone all but ceased. For in altering the giant crystal and tuning it to the cerylls of every mage in the land, Amarid and Theron had not allowed for the possibility that the Order might someday be challenged by a rival. While the mages of Tobyn-Ser were divided by personal resentments and profound differences over matters of conduct, they were still united by the stone. And each time the great ceryll was used to call together what remained of the Order, every free mage and every member of the League saw his or her ceryll flash as well.
Which meant that whatever it was that would cause Radomil or Mered to convene the coming Gathering would have to be grave indeed.
Driven by the thought, Jaryd glanced at his stone again. Nothing yet. But turning his gaze back to the path, he spotted something out of the corner of his eye that made him freeze in the middle of his stride.
He was in an open area, where the trees had long since been cut and hauled off to Lastri. One of the few remaining forested sections loomed before him. And just beside the path, only a few feet in front of this next stand of trees, an enormous dark bird sat on a scarred stump. Its feathers were rich brown, save for those on the back of its neck, which shone in the bright sunlight as if they were made of gold. Its dark eyes regarded Jaryd with an unnatural intelligence that made the mage shiver. It almost seemed to him that the bird had been waiting for him; that it had known he would be coming.
He knew, of course, what it meant, what the gods and this bird expected of him. And he shook his head.
More than anything in the world he wanted to be bound again. But even this longing had its limits. He didn't want a familiar this badly.
"I don't want this," he said, his voice sounding small.
The great creature stared at him impassively.
Jaryd turned away. He wanted to run, to turn his back on this gift from the gods, if such a binding could even be considered a gift. What would happen if I were to refuse a binding? he wondered briefly. Would the gods ever favor me with a familiar again? He shook his head. Probably not. Because in this case, refusing the binding meant far more than defying the gods. It meant breaking his oath to serve Tobyn-Ser and its people.
The gods had sent him an eagle. And though his blood ran cold at what that meant, Jaryd knew that he had no choice but to accept this binding and all that came with it.
He took a long, steadying breath, readying himself for the onslaught of images and emotions he knew would come as soon as he met the eagle's gaze again.
I've been through this before, he told himself, remembering his binding to Ishalla. I know that I can do it.
He took another breath and then faced the great bird once more.
Their eyes met. Jaryd had time to remark to himself that this was the most magnificent bird he had ever seen. And then it hit him.
For any ordinary binding, his experience with his first familiar might have been ample preparation. But this was an eagle, and, Jaryd realized in that final instant of clarity, there would be nothing ordinary about their time together. It was his last rational thought for some time.
Visions and memories suddenly coursed through him like the flood waters of the Dhaalismin: hunting along the crest of the Seaside Range; flipping over in mid-flight to ward off the attack of two smaller hawks; swooping and diving with another, smaller eagle in what he recognized instinctively as a courtship flight; pouncing on a rabbit, digging his talons into its soft fur and flesh, killing it with a quick slash of his razor beak.
He reached for the eagle, feeling her presence in his mind and remembering that he had done this with Ishalla. But the bird resisted him, as if she were not ready to accept him yet. There is more, she seemed to be telling him. It is not yet time.
The images continued to cascade through him so swiftly that he barely had time to make sense of them. The next one seemed to begin before the last was done. He saw the eagle's parents, its siblings, all the creatures it had ever killed, all the rivals it had ever fought off. He saw its one mate, and he saw that bird die with a hunter's arrow in its breast. He saw the eagle's entire life pass before him in a spiraling procession of memory, thought, and emotion. Yet, dizzying and bewildering as this was, he had expected it. The pattern was familiar in a way. He had shared his consciousness with a bird before. And so he resisted the overwhelming urge to fight against this tide of thought. Instead he allowed the eagle's consciousness to carry him where it might.
But despite his experience, despite his attempts to heed the lessons he had learned from his first binding, what came next shocked him, humbled him, frightened him. Abruptly he wasn't an eagle anymore. Or rather, he wasn't this eagle anymore.
He was circling above a tall, powerfully built mage to whom he was bound. And as he watched, two armies approached each other under a hazy sky. One army flew the flag of ancient Abborij. The other was led by a phalanx of mages. In the distance, beyond the warriors, he could see the waters of the Abborij Strait, and he knew that he was on Tobyn-Ser's Northern Plain, watching the first war with Abborij. The armies came together amid shouts of death and fear, and almost immediately the Abboriji army fell back, their weapons shattered by magic.
An instant later, he was bound to a different mage, this one a woman, tall and hale like the man who came before her. Her silver hair flew in a stiff, cold wind, and the cerylls of her fellow mages glittered in the bright winter sun. Again an army approached across the plain, a larger force this time. It marched under a flag different from the first, but still recognizable as a banner of Abborij. And once more the soldiers of Abborij were no match for the mages of Tobyn-Ser.
A third mage, this one also a woman. She was young and small of stature, though no less fierce that her predecessors in her defense of the land. The army approaching her through a fine grey mist was larger than the first two combined, and the magic of the mages she commanded took far longer to prevail. But prevail it did. He saw the people of Tobyn-Ser rejoicing in their victory even as they wept for the dead. He saw Glenyse hoisted onto the shoulders of an enormous, bearded man who wielded an ax and bore welts and bloody gashes on his forehead and arms. This man walked with the mages and held a ceryll, but he carried no familiar on his shoulder. And in the remote corner of his mind that was still his own, Jaryd recognized this man as Phelan, the Wolf-Master, who had lost Kalba, his one familiar, just before the third Abboriji invasion, and who had vowed never to bind again.
Other images washed over him. Lifetime after lifetime after lifetime. It almost seemed that he was binding not to one bird, but to many, each carrying its own memories and those of the mage it had loved. He saw scenes from the lives of the three Eagle- Sages who had come before flashing through his mind so swiftly that he had no time to interpret them, no time even to divine from whose life they had come. He kept waiting for a pattern to emerge, for the flood of images to begin again, as it had during his binding to Ishalla. But there was no ending here; there was nothing to grasp. Yes, he had been through a binding before. But nothing could have prepared him for this. He was being carried away by the deluge. He was drowning.
And in that moment, when at last he saw a familiar image and sensed that a pattern had finally emerged, that there was an ending after all, he was very nearly too exhausted to assert his own consciousness again.
Jaryd felt the eagle touch his mind once more, nudging him as if to awaken him from slumber. This time, when Jaryd opened himself to her, offering her his memories and emotions as she had done for him, she accepted. Once more, he saw her flying, hunting, fighting, but this time his own life was interwoven with hers. The images of the Abboriji wars did not return, and seeing the images of her life again, Jaryd understood why. They had not truly been her memories to give. This was not the same eagle who had bound to Fordel, Decla, and Glenyse, the three Eagle-Sages. But somehow, this eagle -- his eagle, who now named herself to him as Rithlar -- carried those memories within her. It was impossible. The wars had taken place hundreds of years ago. But Jaryd knew what he had seen.
Rithlar seemed to sense his doubts, for a moment later he saw the armies again, and the sequence of events repeated itself in his mind, exactly as it had a short time before. Then he understood.
"This is how it was given to you," he said aloud.
His voice appeared to break the spell woven by their binding. Suddenly he was standing in the clearing again. It was over. He felt the eagle's presence in his mind and he knew that they were bound to each other.
Jaryd continued to gaze at the bird, who still had not moved from her perch beside the road. He felt awkward in a way. The instant he bound to Ishalla, he loved her as he had no other person or creature. Even his love for Alayna, powerful as it was, did not exceed his feelings for his first hawk.
But he knew already that he and Rithlar would have a different kind of relationship. She was an eagle, and because she had chosen him, he would be the fourth Eagle-Sage in the history of the land. The gods had brought them together for one reason: Tobyn-Ser was destined for war. Soon. Theirs was not to be a binding based upon love or even friendship, although in time it might come to be characterized by those things. Theirs was a bond born of necessity and forged by their devotion to the land. He wondered briefly if it might have been otherwise had he not at first resisted the binding, but he sensed no resentment in the bird's thoughts. Only a reserved pride and the same preternatural intelligence he had seen in her eyes when he first encountered her. Had it been this way for Glenyse and the others?
Thinking this, he began to tremble. I am an Eagle-Sage, he told himself. I'm going to lead Tobyn-Ser into a war. But against whom? There had been no new conflicts with the outlanders since Orris returned from Lon-Ser over six years ago. Certainly Abborij posed no threat -- Tobyn-Ser had been at peace with its northern neighbor for more than four centuries.
"At least now I know why we have to go to Amarid," he said grimly.
That of all things caused the great bird to stir. She opened her wings and let out a soft cry. Jaryd walked to where she was sitting and held out his arm for her. Immediately she hopped to it, and Jaryd gasped with pain. Not only were her talons considerably larger than Ishalla's and just as sharp, she also weighed far more than his first familiar. Her claws stabbed through the skin of his forearms like daggers. He quickly conveyed to her that she should move to his shoulder, where his cloak was reinforced with leather. Even this did not help much, however. The padding on his shoulder was as effective as parchment against those talons.
"We're going to have to do something about that," Jaryd said, wincing as he resumed his journey to Lastri. After only a few steps though, Jaryd realized that he could not carry Rithlar the way he had Ishalla. The eagle was simply too large and heavy. Every step he took caused her to grip his shoulder, and he could feel his shirt and cloak becoming soaked with blood.
I'm sorry, he sent, but you'll have to fly.
She sent an image of herself gliding above him as he walked to show that she understood, and Jaryd braced himself, knowing that when she leaped off his shoulder, her claws would gouge him again. Instead, however, she hopped down to the ground and then took off with great, slow, sweeping wing beats. And as Jaryd started to walk again, entering one of the few remaining wooded sections of the road, Rithlar soared overhead, just above the tops of the bare trees.
In flight she appeared even more enormous than she did when she was sitting. The combined length of her wings easily exceeded Jaryd's height, and he was by no means a small man. When the mage stepped back into an open area, she swooped down low and circled just above him, and he marveled that so great a creature could move with such grace.
It was not the binding he had expected or hoped for. In truth the implications of the eagle's appearance terrified him. But Jaryd could not help but smile as he watched her fly. It had been so long since he had shared his thoughts with a familiar, or felt the enhanced awareness of his surroundings that came with being bound. For the first time in longer than he could remember, he felt like a mage again.
Your concern for my safety is appreciated but unnecessary -- and you can tell Jibb that I'm not yet ready to resort to employing a bodyguard. This is not to say that the conflicts between the Order and the League have ceased or that I am any less a target of the League's enmity. Quite the contrary: the mages of Tobyn-Ser remain hopelessly divided and I still spend much of my time looking over my shoulder for would-be attackers.
In a sense though, I am resigned to this. It strikes me as a fitting punishment for my defiance of the Order's will. The land has suffered greatly as a result of my actions; that I should suffer too, seems just. Don't be alarmed: I have no intention of allowing myself to be killed. My guilt does not run that deep. But just as the gods appear to have ordained that I shall never bind to an owl, the League has determined that I shall never know peace. And I am prepared to accept both decrees. -- Hawk-Mage Orris to Melyor i Lakin, Sovereign and Bearer of Bragor-Nal, Winter, God'sYear 4633.
By the time Jaryd and his eagle reached Lastri it was past midday. Jaryd gathered food as quickly as he could and then went in search of Narelle, the leader of the town council. He found her by the piers arguing with an Abboriji sea merchant.
Narelle was a stout woman, with steel grey hair and overlarge features. She had a deep, powerful voice, and pale blue eyes that flashed angrily now as she spoke to the merchant.
"If you unload your cargo, you pay the town docking fees!" she told the man as Jaryd approached. "If you don't wish to pay the fees, that's fine! You can take your ship and everything on it somewhere else!"
The man shook his head. "But as I told you, I have no choice but to unload here. My client--"
"And as I've told you," Narelle said, "that is not my concern! If you use Lastri's piers, you pay Lastri's fees."
She turned away, effectively ending their discussion, and almost bumped into Jaryd.
"Hawk-Mage!" she said pleasantly. "How nice to see you!"
Jaryd had to fight to keep from laughing. He had seen Narelle do this before: she could be unyielding and hostile one moment, and effusive and charming the next. As far as he could tell, neither was done for effect; it was just her way.
"It's good to see you as well, Narelle," Jaryd replied. "Better for me, it would seem, than for that merchant."
She laughed and waved her hand, as if she could dismiss the matter of the docking fees with the gesture. "That was nothing," she said. "I must have the same conversation five times a day." She started to walk back toward the town square, indicating to Jaryd that he should follow. "Everyone wants to do business here, but only on their terms. They don't understand that I have a town to run. Those new piers didn't just emerge from the sea. We built them, and it cost us a good deal of gold to do so. But these merchants don't seem to understand that. As far as they're concerned, we owed them the piers."
Jaryd smiled, remembering the first time he saw this town, soon after he and Alayna arrived on the shores of South Shelter a decade ago. At that time, the entire town had consisted of one street and two or three storefronts, and the villagers had stowed their fishing boats on a sandy beach because there were no docks at all. Commerce had been limited to whatever Lastri's people could get for the fish they caught and the baskets they wove.
"I know what you're thinking," Narelle said, looking at him sidelong. "But even if we weren't sending timber to Lon-Ser, we still would have needed the docks."
"Actually," Jaryd told her, "I was just thinking back to my first visit to your town."
"Ah," she said, nodding. "I think of that now and then, too. There wasn't much to see back then was there?"
Jaryd forced a smile, but said nothing, and they continued in silence for several strides.
"You have blood on your cloak!" Narelle said with alarm, stopping suddenly and pointing to Jaryd's sleeve. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I have a new familiar, and she has quite a powerful grip." He glanced up at Rithlar, who was circling above them.
Following his gaze, Narelle gave a small gasp. "She's beautiful, Hawk-Mage! I've never seen a hawk so large!"
He didn't bother to correct her. No doubt she was familiar enough with the history of Tobyn-Ser to know what the appearance of an eagle meant, and he didn't wish to frighten her.
She looked at Jaryd again. "So how can I help you, Hawk- Mage? You must have come to see me for a reason." She glanced at the sack of food he has carrying and frowned slightly. "This is not good," she said. "Whenever I see you with provisions it means my people will be doing without your services for some time."
Jaryd laughed. "I'm afraid you're right. Alayna and I will be leaving for Amarid in the morning. I'm not certain how long we'll be gone." He thought about saying more, but again he thought better of it. He and Alayna would not be back for some time. He was to be Eagle-Sage, which meant that they would be living in the Great Hall until whatever crisis awaited them had passed. But he couldn't tell her that either. He looked around at the town, noting the faded green flags that flew above the doorways of every home and building. This was an Order town largely because he and Alayna lived nearby. Even with the anti- Order sentiment fomented by Erland and his allies when they formed the League, the people of Lastri had remained loyal to the Order because they knew and trusted the young mages who lived just outside of town. But Jaryd wondered now whether that loyalty would survive their departure and the arrival of a new mage in the area.
"Is everything all right, Hawk-Mage?" Narelle asked. "You look troubled."
"Everything's fine, Narelle," he said, his assurances sounding hollow to his own ears. "I just wanted to let you know that we'd be going."
She frowned again, furrowing her brow. "Well, do you know why you're needed in Amarid?"
"No," he said, although he could not keep his gaze from wandering up to Rithlar. "I have no idea."
He thought he was lying to her. It was only later, as he walked back through the forest, that he realized how much truth there had been in his answer. Even knowing the land was destined for war, he had no sense of why this should be so or who their enemy would be.
He arrived back home just as the sun was disappearing behind the Lower Horn on the far side of South Shelter. Stopping by the front door, he waited for Rithlar to settle to the ground beside him. He squatted down and stroked the feathers on her chin.
You are the most glorious creature I've ever seen, he sent. I don't know why you've come, or why you chose me, but I'm sorry I refused you at first. And I promise that no matter what it is that brought you here, we'll face it together. By way of reply, she nuzzled him gently with her huge hooked bill. In spite of everything, Jaryd laughed. Perhaps he could love her after all. He stood, opened the door, and stepped inside, motioning for Rithlar to follow him.
Three saddle bags sat near the door in the common room. Two of them had been filled and strapped shut. The last, obviously intended for the food, was still open and was empty save for some rope, a few eating utensils, and some of Myn's favorite play things.
Jaryd heard Alayna and Myn laughing from one of the back rooms.
"I'm back," he called.
"We're in Myn's room," Alayna answered. "What took you so long?"
He looked at Rithlar, who had been surveying her surroundings with a critical eye. Now she bounded into the kitchen, hopped onto a chair, and jumped from there onto the table.
"Come out and take a look," Jaryd said, following the eagle into the kitchen. "I think I've figured out why we're going to Amarid."
"How could you have?" Alayna called back. "Radomil hasn't even figured it out yet." She appeared in the doorway with Myn behind her. "Our cerylls still aren't--"
She froze, her eyes widening as the color drained from her cheeks. "By the gods!" she whispered.
Myn stepped past her and walked right to the edge of the table, staring at the great bird. Rithlar gazed back at the child, her head tilted to the side slightly, and they remained that way for several moments, neither of them looking away.
"What is it, Papa?" the girl asked.
"It's an eagle, Love. Her name is Rithlar."
"That's a funny name."
"Actually," Alayna said quietly before Jaryd could respond, "it's the name of every eagle that has ever bound to a mage."
Jaryd looked at her sharply. "Are you sure?"
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," he said, facing his familiar again. "She carries their memories. I saw the Abboriji invasions during our binding."
Alayna pushed her hair back from her forehead with a rigid hand. "You have to contact Radomil," she told him. She looked pale, and her voice sounded tight. "He has to summon the others."
"Did you see Narelle?"
"And had you already been bound?"
"Yes, but don't worry. Narelle just thought I'd found a really big hawk."
Alayna gave a small laugh, although she grew serious again almost immediately. "An eagle, Jaryd," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "Do you know what that means?"
"What does it mean, Mama?"
Alayna glanced quickly at Jaryd and then looked down at Myn, making herself smile. "Well, Myn-Myn, it means that . . ." She trailed off, her eyes meeting Jaryd's again.
"It means," Jaryd said, "that I'm going to be the new leader of the Order, so we'll be living at the Great Hall for a while."
Myn stared at him in amazement. "You're going to be Owl- Sage?"
"In a sense, yes," Jaryd told her. "But I'll be called Eagle-Sage. And since we'll be living in Amarid, and we won't be back here for a long time, I want you to go check your room to see if there's anything else you want to bring with us. All right?"
"All right, Papa," she answered, already running to the back of the house.
"Thanks," Alayna murmured, staring after her.
"We'll have to tell her eventually," Jaryd said. "She's going to figure it out when she sees the way other people react."
Alayna faced him again and nodded. "I know." She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder. "Are you scared?"
"Yes, but not as much as I was this morning."
"At least you've bound again."
She pulled back and gave him a wry look, which he returned. Again though, her smile faded quickly.
"I don't envy you," she said.
"It's not just me," he replied. "You're going to be First of the Sage."
She put her head on his shoulder again. "Wouldn't you rather have Orris?"
He kissed the top of her head. "Orris's hair isn't as soft as yours"
"How do you know?" she demanded, feigning jealousy.
"I think I'll check on Myn," Alayna said. "She's probably trying to pack her bed."
Jaryd nodded, taking a long breath. "I'll contact Radomil."
He stepped outside again with Rithlar following close behind. It was almost dark. Only the western horizon was still tinged with yellow and orange, and several stars had already emerged in the deep indigo overhead. Jaryd's breath hung before him in clouds of steam, and he shivered slightly in the cold, still air.
He had not attempted to use the Mage-Craft since Ishalla's death, and faced now with the prospect of attempting the Ceryll- var, one of the most complicated and draining tasks any mage could undertake, he felt unsure of himself.
"I haven't done this in a while," he said to the eagle.
She merely stared at him.
He sat on the ground beside her, and closing his eyes, reached for the connection they had forged that morning. He felt her presence instantly, and as he began to send his consciousness eastward toward Amarid, where Radomil now lived, he felt power flowing through him like the icy waters of a mountain stream. The sensation was both familiar and alien, for while Ishalla's power had also run cool and swift through his body, his first hawk had never been this strong. Within seconds Jaryd had found Radomil's ivory ceryll in the vast blackness in which one traveled for the stone merging. He projected his own sapphire into the Owl-Sage's stone and then waited for Radomil to reach back. The entire process had been nearly effortless.
Jaryd? Radomil sent.
Yes, Owl-Sage. I'm here.
This is a surprise. I didn't know you had bound again. Congratulations.
Thank you, Owl-Sage. Jaryd couldn't help but smile. He had known Radomil since his childhood. The rotund Owl-Master had once served Leora's Forest in northwestern Tobyn-Ser, where Jaryd's home village of Accalia was located. And even now, after the two of them had served in the Order together for a dozen years, Jaryd still sensed an almost fatherly pride in Radomil's thoughts as the Owl-Sage congratulated him on his binding.
Have you bound to an owl? Mered and I have assumed since Alayna's binding that you would.
Jaryd sighed. This was not going to be easy.
No, Owl-Sage, it wasn't an owl.
Jaryd sensed Radomil's embarrassment. I'm sorry, Jaryd. I didn't mean to presume . . .
Please, don't apologize, Jaryd sent. There was no way to cushion it. I've bound to an eagle, Owl-Sage. That's why I've contacted you. I thought you should know.
The Sage offered no response for some time. Indeed, had not Jaryd still felt the Sage's shock and fear, he might have thought that their connection had been broken.
Arick guard us all, the Owl-Sage finally sent. Have you told Baden yet?
No. Aside from Alayna, you're the only one who knows. I assumed you'd want to convene a Gathering to inform the others and decide what we should do next.
What I want is irrelevant. You lead the Order now.
Jaryd sensed no bitterness in Radomil's thoughts; no anger at having his rule ended so abruptly. He was merely acknowledging what both of them knew to be true.
Would you like me to use the Summoning Stone, Eagle-Sage?
Eagle-Sage. Jaryd felt his mouth go dry. He wasn't ready for this.
Yes, he sent at last. Yes, I guess I would.
Very well. If you'd like, Mered and I will remain in the Great Hall until you and Alayna arrive -- I assume Alayna will be your First.
That will be fine. Thank you, Radomil. Jaryd felt himself growing light-headed. Perhaps it was the strain of using the Mage-Craft for the first time in so long. Or perhaps it was the realization of what he had become. It was hard to tell just now. But he felt his connection with Radomil growing weaker.
I don't want anyone to know yet, Radomil, he sent, desperately trying to keep his thoughts coherent. Only you and the First. And Baden, but I'll tell him myself. I don't want to cause any panic. If anyone asks, just tell them I've requested a Gathering.
I understand, Radomil replied, his thoughts seeming increasingly distant with each moment. Arick guard you on your journey, Eagle-Sage. And may he bring you to us quickly.
An instant later, Radomil was gone. Jaryd opened his eyes to a starry sky that appeared to spin like a child's top. He sensed no fatigue from Rithlar, nor had her power wavered even for an instant during his exchange with the Owl-Sage. But he was exhausted from channeling the magic she gave him. And not for the first time that day, he wondered why the gods had chosen him for this binding.
"There must be others who are better prepared for this," he said to the darkness. "There must be others who are stronger and wiser."
Rithlar nuzzled him, again, as she had earlier in the evening. I've chosen you, she seemed to be telling him. For better or worse, I've chosen you.
Jaryd stroked her chin, and then gazed up at the stars again. The dizziness was beginning to pass, and he could see the constellation of Arick overhead, his hand raised to smite the land.
"There is a war coming," Jaryd whispered, feeling cold and terribly young. "And I am to be the fist of the gods."
He was a migrant. He always had been, and he had no doubt that he would remain one for the rest of his life. The way of the nester had never appealed to him. The very idea of it made him restless. He had only known two women in his life who, given the chance, might have convinced him to settle in one place and make a home. One of them was now the wife of his best friend and the other lived hundreds of leagues away, on the far side of Arick's Sea, in a land so alien that even the stars looked different in the night sky.
Every mage in the land knew that Alayna and Jaryd belonged together. The gods had made that clear by sending them identical birds for their first bindings. And Orris would never have begrudged his closest friends their happiness, particularly not after the birth of their beautiful daughter.
As for Melyor, who now ruled Bragor-Nal as Lon-Ser's first Gildriite Sovereign, Orris was too wise a man to pine for her. Notwithstanding the narrow isthmus that joined their two lands, they lived in utterly different worlds. It didn't matter that they loved each other. They had their letters and, Orris knew, that was all they could have, at least for now. And though he would never have said that the letters were enough, they were something. They were the only things that even allowed her to be a part of his life here in Tobyn-Ser.
He accepted this as part of the price he paid for the power the gods had given him, just as he had reconciled himself to the fact that his endless solitude was a natural outgrowth of being a migrant mage. No one had forced him to live this way; it had been his decision. And he had pledged himself to the Order and to the land long before he had fallen in love with Bragor-Nal's Sovereign. But though he accepted the choices he had made, he was forced to acknowledge that he had never expected his travels to become as frenzied and relentless as they had in the past few years. Even in his youth, when he had wandered the length and breadth of the land, intent on proving to the older migrants of the Order that he was hardier than they, he had not covered as much territory as quickly as he did these days. Because while he had been driven as a young man by arrogance and misguided zeal, he had never been hunted, as he was now.
It sometimes seemed to Orris that there was no place where he could rest. Everywhere he went, the mages of the League of Amarid found him. Sometimes it took them a few days, on rare occasions a week. But eventually he would be forced to move on. The only real peace he had known for the past several years had come during his visits with Jaryd and Alayna on the shores of South Shelter. There, either the League mages couldn't find him, or more likely, they were unwilling to take on Jaryd and Alayna as well. But though his friends had always welcomed him and had never placed any constraints on the length of his stays, Orris was unwilling to impose upon them for very long. They had Myn to take care of, and though the League mages had left him alone during his visits thus far, he had no guarantee that they wouldn't be bolder the next time.
So after a short rest, usually no more than three or four days, he would leave them and resume his journeys, watchful once more for any sign of attack. He did everything he could to avoid confrontations. Given the choice between fighting and fleeing, he invariably chose the latter. Clearly the League mages had found some way to reconcile their attacks on Orris with their pledge to uphold Amarid's Laws, but Orris had vowed not to use the Mage-Craft against another mage, and he intended to do everything he could to honor that vow.
On those occasions when he had no choice but to fight, he did so defensively, using his power only to shield himself until he could slip away. He had yet to kill one of his attackers, despite having been injured several times himself. And though he would have liked to hunt down the man who had killed Anizir three years ago, he knew that his adherence to the oath he had taken would not allow him even that satisfaction.
There was nothing for him to do but continue his wanderings and, when possible, offer his services to those who would accept them. Of course, even this was made more difficult by the existence of the League. Over the past few years he had been in every region of Tobyn-Ser. He had stopped in literally hundreds of towns and villages and had seen the blue flags of the League flying in roughly half of them. Somewhat fewer remained loyal to the Order, and a growing number wished only to be served by those mages who claimed to have no ties to either body.
These so-called free mages were a relatively new phenomenon, but they struck Orris as far more dangerous than the League. They answered to no one. If a mage of the Order attempted to use the Mage-Craft to gain wealth or power, or to harm in any way the people of Tobyn-Ser, he or she would be tried and punished by the rest of the Order. And though the leadership of the League appeared to be encouraging or at least tolerating the attacks on Orris, as far as he knew they dealt with other violations of Amarid's Laws just as the Order did. In practice, there had been few violations of the First Mage's laws over the course of the last thousand years, and in the most serious case, the treachery of Owl-Master Sartol, the Order had been agonizingly slow to act. But in theory at least, the mages of both the League and the Order were held accountable for their actions. The free mages, on the other hand, were subject to no laws of conduct. They took no oath, and they had no procedure for disciplining renegade mages. Orris shuddered to think of what would have happened if Sartol had been given the opportunity to be a free mage rather than a member of the Order.
He had been walking northward along the eastern edge of Tobyn's Plain, and he paused now, looking west to watch as the sun, huge and orange, and partially obscured by a thin line of dark clouds, began to slide below the horizon. Almost immediately, the wind sweeping across the grasses and farmland turned colder. Orris shivered within his cloak and started walking again, immediately falling back into the rhythm that came to him so naturally now. He could see the God's wood before him, perhaps a league away. It would be dark when he got there, but the moon was up in the eastern sky, yellow and almost full. It would light his way once the daylight vanished, and if it failed him, he could always summon mage-light from his ceryll. He glanced at the stone and grinned, his thoughts traveling west again to Lon-Ser. Once he had carried a crystal that shone with an amber light. But seven years ago, in Bragor-Nal, he and Melyor had used his stone and hers to fool Cedrych, the Overlord who was responsible for the outlanders' attacks on Tobyn-Ser. Their ruse worked for only a moment, but that was long enough. In the battle that followed, they killed Cedrych, sending him toppling from the window of his opulent quarters to the avenue far below. But Orris's staff fell with him and the mage's ceryll shattered into thousands of pieces.
After returning to Tobyn-Ser, Orris traded for a new ceryll with his friend Crob, an Abboriji merchant. But when Crob placed the new stone in Orris's hand, the light that burst from the crystal was different from the hue of the mage's first ceryll. It was a subtle change. Few people other than Orris would have noticed. And thinking about it afterward, he soon realized that he shouldn't have been surprised. Since finding his first stone in the caverns of Ceryllon he had grown wiser, more patient, and more compassionate. But he also knew from looking at the new ceryll that there was more to it than that. His ceryll-hue had gone from amber to russet. It almost seemed as if some of the red from Melyor's stone had found its way into his. Again he smiled. He still wasn't entirely certain what it meant, but it pleased him.
He continued northward as darkness spread across the plain and the constellations began to take shape in the night sky. A town appeared in the distance, ahead of him and slightly to the west, its small houses glowing warmly with candlelight and hearth fire, but he didn't alter his course. He had been there before. Its name was Woodsview, and it was a League town.
Seeing the lights of the village, Orris felt himself growing tense. His grip tightened on his staff, and he found himself scanning the horizon continuously, and glancing over his shoulder periodically to make certain he wasn't being followed. Kryssan, gliding above him, seemed to sense the change in his mood, and she flew higher so that she could better survey their surroundings. He looked up at the white falcon and nodded with grim satisfaction. They weren't likely to be surprised out here on the plain. Once they reached Tobyn's Wood, they'd be more vulnerable to an attack, but he and his falcon had been in hostile areas before. They were more than capable of defending themselves.
At times he grew tired of living like an Abboriji war general, planning for battle every time he walked into a new village or crossed unfamiliar terrain. But he was used to this by now, and considering how many times a little bit of foresight had saved his life, it seemed a small enough price to pay. Still, he had made the mistake once of complaining about it to Melyor in one of his letters. She had replied rather unsympathetically by pointing out that she had been living this way since the age of fifteen, when she had become a break-law. "Such is the nature of life in Bragor-Nal," she had reminded him. "If you can live that way in Tobyn-Ser, perhaps you are ready to return to Lon-Ser and be with me." He had not complained about it again, nor had she raised again the prospect of him joining her in Bragor-Nal.
Skirting Woodsview, Orris and Kryssan soon reached the edge of the God's wood. The gentle radiance of the moon had been enough to light their way as they covered the last league of the plain, but as they stepped into the brooding shadows of Tobyn's Wood, Orris was forced to draw more light from his ceryll. He did so reluctantly, knowing that it announced their presence to anyone within sight of the wood. Their only other choice, however, was to spend the night on the plain, where the chill air would have required that he start a fire. At least the wood offered shelter from the wind and the opportunity for an inconspicuous retreat.
They walked some distance into the forest, only stopping when Orris could no longer see any sign of Woodsview. Even then, Orris took the added precaution of finding a small hollow in which to make camp and build his fire. Kryssan flew to a high branch that afforded her a view of the hollow and the surrounding forest, and she began to preen. Orris gathered a pile of wood, started his fire, and sat back against the trunk of an enormous oak to eat some of the smoked meat and dried fruit that he carried in pouches within the folds of his cloak.
He had eaten well earlier in the day on a large grouse killed for him by his falcon, and he ate only a few bites of meat and fruit before putting the food away. He briefly considered working on his current letter to Melyor, but tired as he was, he decided against it. Instead, he lay his staff across his legs where he could reach it easily, and settled back against the tree again with his eyes closed. When he was younger, he would have found it impossible to sleep this way. But as in so many other ways, the exigencies of his life had demanded that he adjust.
He was certain that he had fallen asleep quickly, because the next thing he knew, Kryssan was waking him silently, sending him the image of an approaching mage. Orris sensed an eager tension in the falcon's thoughts, but no panic. The mage often wondered if she actually enjoyed these encounters.
He closed his eyes again and, reaching for the falcon with his mind, looked upon the approaching mage a second time. It was a man, bearded and slight, with youthful features. He carried a sea-green ceryll and was accompanied by a small grey woodland hawk. Orris didn't recognize him, but he knew from the stranger's blue cloak that he was a League mage, and therefore an enemy. He could also tell from the way the mage carried himself -- his staff held out before him, his body in a fighter's crouch, his steps light and careful -- that he was ready to fight. He knew Orris was there.
Opening his eyes once more, Orris glanced quickly toward the fire. It had burned down to little more than a bed of glowing orange coals that crackled and settled loudly in the stillness shaped by Tobyn's Wood. Still, in the darkness, Orris could see that the embers offered a would-be attacker ample light. And the thin line of pale grey smoke that rose from the fire and drifted, as it happened, back toward the plain and Woodsview, could easily serve as a beacon to someone tracking him from that direction.
Cursing his own stupidity, Orris considered smothering the remnants of his fire, but in that moment he heard the footfalls of the stranger. The man was close; Orris didn't even have time to flee. Kryssan dropped silently to the ground beside him and the mage did the only thing he could. He crawled silently into the shadows on the far side of the small clearing and waited for the League mage to come into view.
He took position behind a jagged stump among tangles of bare vines and brush. He could already see the sea-green glow of the man's ceryll seeping into the darkness around him like a slow summer tide advancing on the dark sands of the Upper Horn. He held his breath, remaining perfectly still. He again reached for Kryssan with his mind, readying her for what he intended to do, and felt once more the eagerness for battle that he had sensed when she awakened him.
Do you hate them so? he asked her, chiding her slightly with his tone.
She nuzzled him gently in response and Orris allowed himself a momentary smile.
Then he saw the young stranger who wished to kill him, and his mood grew dark. The man's bird was perched on his shoulder, and for just an instant Orris thought of avenging Anizir. It would have been so easy.
"I have sworn an oath," he reminded himself.
It was only when the man froze, looking frantically in his direction that Orris realized he had spoken aloud. Before his would-be attacker could do anything, Orris uncovered his ceryll for just a second and sent a beam of rust-colored fire hissing past the stranger's head. The man dove for cover, and his grey hawk darted up into a nearby tree, crying out repeatedly. An instant later the mage sent his own mage-fire back in Orris's direction, although his volley did not come very close to where Orris was hiding.
Orris grinned in the darkness. The stranger was new to battle.
"Have you come to die, Mage?" Orris called out.
Another stream of sea-green fire crashed into a nearby tree trunk, closer this time. Orris crouched a bit lower.
"I can see your little hawk, Mage," Orris goaded. "Shall I kill her now?"
No mage-fire this time, but the woodland hawk did hop higher into her tree, positioning herself on the far side of its trunk, which was just what Orris had been hoping for. As long as she was hiding, she couldn't offer her mage any information on Orris's position.
"Come now, friend," Orris called. "Surely you don't wish to die here, far from your home and--"
Two more beams of fire sliced through the darkness, one of them actually striking the tree stump that Orris was using for shelter. Orris retreated a bit farther into the brush. Perhaps the stranger wasn't as callow as he had seemed at first.
"I'm not afraid of dying!" the man threw back at him, contempt in his young voice. "At least not in a battle with you. Word of your cowardice has spread through the land, Mageling! And if your first attempt on my life in any indication, I have nothing to fear from you!"
I was trying to miss, you idiot! Orris wanted to shout back. Instead, he took a steadying breath. This was a tactic the League mages had used repeatedly in their recent encounters with him. They could not keep him from fleeing, and they had trouble tracking him when he did, so they had taken to trying to provoke him into staying and fighting.
"If I had wanted to kill you with my first volley, you'd be dead," Orris said evenly.
The stranger fired again, hitting the stump a second time and igniting a small fire. "Well, here I am, traitor!" he answered. "Why don't you kill me now?"
Orris shook his head, though the man couldn't see him. "I'm not in the habit of killing children." He regretted his choice of words the instant he spoke.
"No!" the man cried out, pouncing like a wild cat. "You're too much of a coward even for that! Instead you give aid to those who kill children! You take them from their prison cells and return them to the comfort of their homes!"
Orris closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. How much abuse could the gods ask him to endure? How much longer could he be expected to honor his oath? Yes, he had taken Baram from his prison cell and returned him to Lon-Ser. He would even admit that by doing so he had contravened the will of the Order, although there had been no formal vote on the matter. But he had done so to save the land, not to betray it. And Baram had died in Bragor-Nal. Orris could still see the outlander's smile as he released his hold on the window ledge outside Cedrych's office and began to fall to the pavement far below. The outlander was dead. Wasn't that what they had all wanted in the first place?
Yet another shaft of green power flew from the man's ceryll, this one soaring just past Orris's head. Glancing up, Orris saw that the small grey hawk was in the open again and no doubt could see just where he and Kryssan were hiding. Uncovering his own stone again, Orris sent two small bursts of fire at the branches above and below the bird.
The creature leaped into the air, screaming again, and began to circle far above the treetops, her plaintive cries sounding small and distant.
The stranger fired again, but his volleys passed harmlessly over Orris's head.
"You'll attack my bird, but you're afraid of me, eh traitor?"
He had suffered the League's attacks and insults for several years now, repeatedly resisting the urge to lash out with the violence that had once been so much a part of him. And yet it was this last comment that finally broke his resolve. He could accept what they had done to him. He could accept that they wanted him dead. But they had killed Anizir. And now this man had the gall to accuse Orris of cowardice because he had thrown two balls of mage-fire in the direction of the stranger's bird, intending to miss with both. This was too much.
Orris stood, beckoning Kryssan to his shoulder with a thought. Immediately the League mage sent a beam of fire at him, but Orris shielded himself with a wall of russet power and began advancing on the man. The young mage fired a second time, his eyes widening and his mouth hanging open with fear and disbelief. Again, Orris blocked the attack with little effort. The stranger was new to his power and not terribly strong. Orris, on the other hand, had been battling mages for a long time now. He grinned and continued to stride toward his attacker.
The man scrambled to his feet to flee, whistling for his bird as he broke into a run.
Get him! Orris commanded.
Kryssan flew from Orris's shoulder, overtaking the mage in a few seconds and knocking him off balance with a blow to the back. Orris's bird then circled back and ignoring the cries of the smaller woodland hawk, dove at the mage's head. The man cried out and stopped to shield himself from Kryssan's assault. When Orris caught up with him, he was still guarding his face and head with both arms.
Seeing Orris approach, the mage tried to get off one last volley of mage-fire. Before he could, though, Orris smashed his own staff into the man's shoulder, sending the young mage sprawling to the ground, and his staff hurling end over end into the forest. Orris dropped his staff and lunged for the man, picking him up by the collar of his blue robe and knocking him back to the ground with a fist to the jaw.
Then he retrieved his staff and leveled it at the prone man, making the rust-colored ceryll blaze menacingly.
"I--I thought you took an oath!" the League mage said, staring fearfully at the glowing stone. A small line of blood trickled from his mouth, mingling with his beard.
"My oath didn't include putting up with the likes of you!" Orris growled in reply.
The man's hawk called out in alarm, and Kryssan responded with a fierce hiss that silenced the smaller bird.
"They all said you wouldn't fight! You never fight!"
"And that gives you license to attack me?" Orris demanded, his voice rising. "To try to kill me? That gives you the right to call me a traitor and a coward?"
"No, Mage!" the man said, despite his obvious fright. "You earned those names a long time ago!"
Orris exhaled angrily and thrust his ceryll closer to the man's face. The mage flinched and closed his eyes for a moment. But then he opened them again and met Orris's glare.
"You have some courage," Orris said grudgingly. "When you tell the story of this night to your children, you can say it was that, as much as anything, that saved your life."
He started to turn away, but the League mage spit on the ground at Orris's feet.
"You weren't going to kill me," the man said, sneering at him. "You haven't the nerve."
Orris almost did kill him then. He spun back toward the man, laying his ceryll against the side of the mage's throat and baring his teeth in a venomous grin. But in that very instant, even as he reached for Kryssan with his mind to draw the killing power from their bond, he saw something that stopped him cold.
His ceryll had begun to pulse like a heart. For a single dizzying moment he thought that it was a sign from Amarid himself that he should reconsider and spare the man's life. But then he understood. Someone had awakened the Summoning Stone.
The League mage was staring at Orris's ceryll in amazement. "What does it mean?" he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.
"You don't know?"
"I'm new to the League," the mage admitted. "I've never seen this before."
Orris gave a small laugh and shook his head, turning away once again. "Go home and ask your masters," he told the man. "They can tell you what it means. I promise you, it's all they'll be talking about."
He started to walk away, but he stopped himself and returned to where the man still sat on the ground.
"Tell your masters this as well: you are the last."
The mage narrowed his eyes. "The last what?"
"The last survivor. The next mage they send against me I'll kill. I swear it in Amarid's name."
The man opened his mouth to fling back a retort, but Orris stopped him with a raised finger and a look of steel in his eyes.
"Not a word! I've chosen you to be my messenger, but your corpse can make my point just as effectively."
The mage stared at him for some time saying nothing. Finally, the man nodded once. Orris turned and walked away, leaving him there on the forest floor.
Kryssan flew to Orris's shoulder, but she continued to glance back at the League mage and his hawk for some time as Orris made his way northward through the wood.
Don't worry, he sent soothingly. He won't be following us. We may yet have other attacks to deal with, but not from that child, not tonight.
He glanced at his stone. It was blinking steadily now, a general summons. Something important had happened. With the thought, an image of Jaryd and Alayna entered his mind. And Myn, of course. He smiled. At least he'd be seeing the three of them soon. Regardless of what crisis the Order might face now, he would look forward to that.